Langhorne-Larkins post battle could be key
Maryland handed North Carolina its only loss of the season with a 98-95 overtime decision Feb. 9 in Chapel Hill. But the big question is: Can the Terrapins do it again?
The Terps and Tar Heels clash for a third time this season -- UNC beat Maryland 91-80 in the ACC tournament championship game on March 5 -- Sunday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) in the national semifinals.
Here's a look at how they match up:
This game should kick into high gear right from the opening tip.
The Tar Heels topped 90 points in both of their previous meetings and the Terps were right there with them the whole way. Maryland and UNC love to play an up-tempo style, finishing the regular season ranked second and third, respectively, in scoring right behind national leader Duke.
Experience has not been an issue for the young Terps, who had all five starters reach double figures in their win over UNC. They only start one upperclassman and often will play critical stretches with two freshmen and three sophomores on the floor. The innocence of youth seems to deflect any pressure they should be feeling in big games so how will they handle the Final Four attention?
Carolina's starting five has been together for two years, which is a big reason the Heels have been so efficient offensively and cohesive defensively. They enjoy a familiarity with each other and the system. But Ivory Latta, of course, shines brightest in the spotlight. She boasts that the camera loves her, and she loves the camera but will it be a distraction in Boston?
Latta is the best playmaker in the college game and one of the best clutch 3-point shooters as well. Her decision making has been the difference this season, particularly in knowing when to shoot and when to dish.
She has attempted more shots (17-for-43, 39 percent) in the two Maryland matchups than any other games all season. Part of that is due to the tempo of the game. But Latta needs to avoid getting caught up in her own point production and keep everyone else involved. Carolina is at its best when Erlana Larkins is the first scoring option and the other Tar Heels work around her.
Jessica Sell will knock down the occasional triple for UNC, but look for speedy Alex Miller to play extended minutes, giving Carolina another dribble penetrater and quick defender.
Freshman point guard Kristi Toliver got Maryland to the Final Four with a career-high 28 points in the win over Utah. Toliver has rarely been rattled this year and also has a flair for knocking down clutch 3-point baskets. If she has to leave the game, look for UNC to really crank up the defensive pressure.
Latta has been her toughest matchup of the season. Toliver was in foul trouble and out of sorts in the ACC final, shooting 1-for-9 from the field, including an 0-for-5 effort from beyond the arc. She also has a score-first mentality -- and must realize that Maryland's success hinges on establishing power forward Crystal Langhorne.
Shay Doron has provided good leadership for a young team. She blocked Latta's game-tying shot attempt late in overtime of the first Maryland-Carolina meeting. She needs to stay under control against the Tar Heels' pressure. Officials are cognizant of Doron's tendency to flop and try to get a foul instead of finishing plays strong.
ACC Freshman of the Year Marissa Coleman has looked like an All-American at times this season. In the ACC tournament semifinal win over Duke, she was the best player on the floor. She is tremendous off the dribble and has good range from outside. Ashleigh Newman gives the Terps another athletic guard to work into the rotation.
After you watch the game, rewind your TiVo and just watch the battle of the post players off the ball down on the block. It will be well worth it. Take your pick of agile, mobile and aggressive forwards that both coaches can put on the floor.
Your first picks should be Langhorne and Larkins. The sophomores are on the short list of top young post players that should be vying for national titles, All-America honors and spots on the U.S. Olympic team in the coming years.
Larkins won the ACC tournament head-to-head tussle with a 26-point, 12-rebound performance. Langhorne did not get nearly enough touches, taking just seven shots in the game (the perimeter players jacked up 45 attempts; both Latta and Larkins scored 26 points).
They both play with a sense of abandon when going for rebounds and loose balls. Their offensive moves are solid on the block and both run extremely well in transition.
The Carolina duo of Camille Little and La'Tangela Atkinson carried UNC for most of the Tennessee win in the Elite Eight until Latta finished off the Lady Vols. Little and Atkinson are tough, versatile, blue-collar players who can be lethal with their long arms and quickness on defense.
Sophomore Laura Harper is a great complement for Langhorne inside for Maryland. She can score, get on the boards and leads the Terps in blocked shots.
Advantage: North Carolina.
No superpowers are necessary from Maryland's Jade Perry and UNC's LaToya Pringle. With a fast pace and possibly fatigue on both sides, they just need to provide quality minutes and help on the glass. Perry was a surprise for Maryland in the ACC final with an 18-point performance on 7-for-8 shooting. Pringle blocked five shots in the two Maryland games and probably altered a handful of other attempts.
Good guard play wins championships and in this case, good guards should choose to give up the ball. It will eventually come back to them for their own scoring opportunities.
Maryland has to feed Langhorne. In both meetings with UNC, the Terps' perimeter players took more shots than Langhorne did. That won't cut it Sunday. Let her show us why she's an All-American.
Carolina has to get Larkins off to a good start. She struggled against Tennessee (3-for-11 from the field) and the Tar Heels' offense struggled in the second half as a result. Latta says Larkins is the best post player in the country. On Sunday, Latta needs to let Larkins prove it.
Who wins? North Carolina has the advantage.Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.
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